Tag Archives: Leigh Brackett

Special agents, space travel, Russian warrior women and more: books read.

CHASE by Dan Curtis Johnson and James H. Williams III was a 1998 DC comics series I wish had run longer (though Chase has been bouncing around the DCU ever since). Cameron Chase is an agent for the DEO (yes the inspiration for the one on Supergirl) which covertly watches over the metahuman community. Chase has some issues with the superhero set, but she’s a capable agent who does her job, whether it’s with them or against them; she also has a latent meta-power of her own that allows her to shut down other people’s abilities. The explanation for it was one of the things they never got around to, as well as the mystery about how reformed supervillain Mr. Bones wound up as head of the agency.

This includes the original series plus several short stories from various DC special editions. While I passed it up when it originally came out, I’m happy to have Cameron’s stories in TPB.

John Le Carré’s OUR KIND OF TRAITOR has a vacationing British couple befriended by a burly Russian money launderer who offers to turn over his treasure-trove of Russian Mafia secrets to the authorities if they’ll just get him and his family to England and his son into Eton (one of the prestige private schools) This works best in the opening chapters because of the unusual structure, alternating between the encounter and the couple undergoing grilling by British intelligence. It gets more stock near the end, and particularly in the finish — given Le Carré’s 21st century cynicism, it’s no surprise pervasive British corruption wins out over justice. Overall, though, good, and maybe his only novel where a happy couple live all the way to the end without getting torn apart.

ALPHA CENTAURI OR DIE! is a space opera from Leigh Brackett, without the exotic style of her Martian books (even the hardboiled Nemesis From Terra): with Earth’s oppressive government restricting space flight to robot ships (part of a general policy on controlling everyone’s movements), a pilot leads a group of rebels into space hoping to evade the ships and reach Alpha Centauri. However, after they succeed, it turns out there’s Something Powerful on the planet awaiting them. This is extremely sexist, the colonists’ wives being sniveling and timid without the energy Brackett’s Bad Girls exude; however it’s a good, tense read otherwise and I love the secret of the alien race.

THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich is a spectacular collection of anecdotes by women who fought on the Russian front for various reasons (revenge, patriotism, a desire to be near their husbands) and lived through experiences that while certainly familiar (death, friend’s death, near death, scenes of brutality, rape and harassment) comes off fresh, whether because of the female point of view, the grimness of the Russian front or Alexievich having a good eye for a killer quote. The aftermath of the war was a real mixed bag for the interviewees, including those mired in PTSD, those who say they settled down happily, those who were treated as camp followers by their hometowns; a couple who had their husbands carted off by Stalin for getting captured instead of dying. Very good and a fantastic resource if you wants scenes of violence, starvation in sieges or the sounds of combat (like the constant crack of bones when the fighting gets close enough to hear).

#SFWApro. Cover by J.H. Williams III, bottom cover uncredited. All rights to both remain with current holders.

 

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Mars, monsters, black hair and copyright: books read

Leigh Brackett’s THE NEMESIS FROM TERRA reads like a mash-up of Brackett’s Martian adventures with her hardboiled movie scripts (she worked on both The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye). It’s set in an era when a powerful Earth corporation has taken over Mars, press ganging lower-class Martians and Earthers to work in the mines (reminding me of Diana Wynn Jones’ joke about how miners in fantasy novels are always slaves, never actual miners). Tough-as-nails protagonist Rick is on the run from the press gang when a Martian seer tells him he’s destined to rule. To succeed, though, he’s got to defeat the corporation, it’s ruthless leader and deal with their mutual interest in an attractive revolutionary (the Bacall to Rick’s Bogart). Plus, of course, a lost city.

This is a grimmer, tougher yarn than most of Brackett’s Mars stories (people smoke a lot more than they do in her other stories too), but it also fits what Edmond Hamilton (Brackett’s husband) saw as the theme of her work: a man who pursues a great dream only to find it hollow. A good story, in any case.

HAIR STORY: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America by Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps does an excellent job tracing the history of African-American hair and hairstyles from Africa (where elaborate hairstyles were as much a status marker as a bespoke suit today) through slavery to post-Civil War segregation. In both freedom and slavery, straight “white” style hair became the marker of a superior person (and also more acceptable to the white world); later in the 20th century, the popularity of the Afro (and later dredlocks) led to debate whether this represented True Blackness, meaningless fashion or was just tacky. There’s a lot more stuff covered in the book; while I know some of these issues exist, the authors did a great job making me understand them.

TwoMorrows Publishing’s MONSTER MASH: The Creepy, Kooky Monster Craze in America, 1957-1972 by Mark Voger looks back to the late 1950s when Universal released its Shock Theater package to TV, containing its classic monster films (and a lot that weren’t so classic), introducing Frankenstein, Dracula and others to a generation of kids who’d never seen them (the last film in the cycle was 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). Kids were blown away (so was I when I encountered the films in syndication a dozen years later), leading to an explosion of marketing (sweat shirts, Aurora models, Count Chocula cereal, board games) and TV spinoffs such as The Munsters (surprisingly Voger never mentions the film version, Munsters Go Home), The Addams Family and Dark Shadows. Voger argues that while the classic horrors and their spinoffs are still around this era of film horror ended in 1972 as The Exorcist took the genre in another direction. A good job.

HOLLYWOOD’S COPYRIGHT WARS: From Edison to the Internet by Peter Decherney, shows how copyright struggles were part of the movie industry from the early days, when it wasn’t clear if copyright applied to photography (if you just photographed real life, what creativity was there to protect?), let alone to films, which were seen as collections of photographs. Following that debate would come battles over pirating other studios’ films (a common problem in the early years), adapting books and plays for the screen, whether TV editing movies violated creator rights (the Monty Python were one of the few who won that fight, when they sued ABC for butchering their skits for a late-night showing), then into the age of the VCR, DVD and Internet (while I’m more familiar with the issues of this period, Decherney still told me a lot I didn’t know). An excellent job.

#SFWApro. Brackett cover art is uncredited; all rights to images remain with current holders.

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Helen of Troy again, bog people and Martians: books read

THE MIRROR OF HELEN by Richard Purtill was the third in a Grecian fantasy trilogy he wrote back in the 1970s, amounting to three novelettes: her abduction in youth by Theseus, her life in Troy as the war moves to its end and the obscure legend that the Helen in Troy was just a doppelganger created by Egyptian mysticism, and the real Helen was safe in the land of the Nile for all ten years.

Purtill writes the period well and he manages to work within the sexism of the age without making it insufferable the way The Sword is Forged did. I really like his take on a lot of the characters, from cunning, tricky Odysseus to Helen, who fears her own beauty is a curse (as every man who sees her loves her, what mane will ever love her for who she is inside?). However after reading Helen of Troy last week I found myself more conscious than on first reading how very passive Purtill’s Helen is. She never wanted to go with Paris, but was forced into it by Aphrodite (the earlier book points out that by Greek standards, being influenced by the Olympians didn’t let her off the hook); more than that, she seems completely resigned to everything, not pining for Menelaus, nor resisting her captivity nor grieving for Paris’ death. The book was worth rereading but I rate it less highly than I did at first.

THE BOG PEOPLE: Iron Age Man Preserved by PV Glob (a Scandinavian archeologist who wrote the book to answer the letters he was always receiving) looks at the Tollund Man (below) and other cases of corpses found perfectly preserved in peat bogs, even after centures: you can see the noose around his neck, and it’s possible to study hairstyles and even fingerprint some of the corpses. Glob looks at some of the best-known cases, how they were discovered and what they looked like (it’s well photographed) and speculates as to them being ritual sacrifices (I’ve no idea if that theory has held up — this book was written in the 1960s). Dry, but the topic snd the images are just so cool.

There’s a long tradition of SF authors expanding early short stories or novellas into full novels, which is what Leigh Brackett did with THE SECRET OF SINHARAT (a revised and reworked version of Queen of the Martian Catacombs) and THE PEOPLE OF THE TALISMAN, a reworking of  Black Amazon of Mars. In Sinharat, Brackett’s feral-child turned mercenary Eric John Stark is about to sign on with a warlord plotting to lead a barbarian army against Mars’ city states. A old friend convinces him to become a mole for Earth intelligence and stop the war before it starts. Unfortunately an old rival, a beautiful girl and a secret body-jumping immortal make his mission far more dangerous than expected. It’s a good yarn, but not great.

Talisman, however, is absolutely awesome. It starts off like Black Amazon: a dying thief asks Start to take a stolen holy relic back to the city of Kushat. Along the way, Stark falls afoul of the warlord Ciaran, who’s targeting that city to begin his (actually her, as we find out later) reign of conquest. Taking refugees and the talisman beyond the pass called the Gates of Death, Stark goes looking for allies. Instead he finds a creepy ruined city occupied by immortals who seem to have taken the Joker as a role model: they’re giggling insane and spend their time murdering each other (the victims find it as fun as the killers). And now look, all these humans have come here to play … It’s vastly creepier than the lost city in the original story, and I think this is one of Brackett’s best.

#SFWApro. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Helen of Troy is public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Tollund Man photo is from National Museet and used under a creative commons license.

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Women of Wonder: This week’s reading

The Witch World sequel WEB OF THE WITCH WORLD is an apt title as the Kolder are now using mind-controlled Enemies of the Estcarp Way in an elaborate plot to ensnare the witches; when the scheme stretches to include kidnapping Loyse, Simon and Jaelithe start spinning webs of their own (though as other shave pointed out, their plots fall by the wayside). A major plot point is Jaelithe discovers losing her virginity didn’t cancel out her powers, leaving Simon worried she’ll return to her old life (it’s a nice touch that Jaelithe never sees any conflict between Career and Family) while the witches mutter about Jaelithe doing the impossible (which pays off in the next book). One of those sophomore installments that sells the series.

JUDGMENT NIGHT by CL Moore collects several short stories along with the eponymous space-adventure novel. Jaille is princess and heir to the reigning Galactic Empire, horrified her father is actually willing to talk peace with their rising rival, the H’Vali. Perhaps she should see to it that peace doesn’t happen … but then it turns out the H’Vali leader Egide is the man she had a one-night stand with on a hedonistic pleasure planet. Will either of them turn from their course? And what of the Ancients, the all-powerful entities getting ready to judge humanity and pronounce sentence on their continued rule of the galaxy.

This doesn’t work for me as well as Moore’s Northwest Smith stories does, partly because it’s more serious and less pulpish, partly because the protagonists are both antiheroes, and not the likable outlaw kind Smith embodies. Still, it’s a good story with a good female lead and I did not expect the way it turned out.

THE BEST OF LEIGH BRACKETT was part of the same anthology series as the Best of CL Moore collection I read a couple of months back. All these DelRey “best of” collections had an introduction and this one, by Brackett’s husband Edmond Hamilton, was one of the most fun. Hamilton talks about his wife’s writing, why they never collaborated except for one story (he plots everything out, she pantses) and a lot of fun personal stories.

The stories themselves are an excellent lot. The Jewel of Bas about two thieves caught up in a battle for the fuure of their world; Shannach — The Last! in which an ancient Mercurian enslaves human colonists; The Moon That Vanished, in which a broken man is forced on a quest for the ultimate McGuffin; and Enchantress of Venus, one of her Eric John Stark’s stories (if I still DMed, I’d totally work the Red Sea of Venus into my campaign). The other stories are good, except Vanishing Venusiasn with its ugly colonialism (“Wow, Venusians are soulless monsters, we needn’t have any qualms about wiping them out and taking their land!”). Hamilton suggests a running theme in Brackett is of a strong man who attains his dream and discovers it’s hollow; he has a point, but several stories also fit a theme of “reality is better than dreams” (made explicit in Jewel of Bas).

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders; top cover is uncredited, bottom is by Boris Vallejo.

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Is Our Writers Learning? The Coming of the Terrans

Leigh Brackett’s THE COMING OF THE TERRANS collects five of her Martian stories written from 1948 (Beast Jewel of Mars) to the early 1960s (The Road to Sinharat and the luridly titled Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon). They suit my love of pulp perfectly, and I think there’s enough of interest to make them worth a blog post of its own (obviously)

The stories are set on Brackett’s decadent, dying Mars, starting in 1998 with Beast Jewel (the story doesn’t include a date so I’m guessing either Brackett or the editor assigned dates for the book). Said jewel is part of the ritual of Shanga, which a Martian cult uses to regress humans, allowing them the chance to slip the bonds of civilized behavior and act out their fantasies of sex or violence without inhibition. Burk’s lover became addicted to Shanga and vanished into the cult; Burk now follows her. This has its risks because he’s experienced the addiction himself. And after a certain point, Shanga followers begin to devolve into their ancestral forms. The Martians, an ancient race who despise their human occupiers, take great joy in this.

The final story, set 40 years later, is Road to Sinharat. While the title lost city is certainly a great pulp invention, the story itself seems more in tune with the mood of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when colonies were declaring independence right and left. Earth is determined to take over Mars’ slim water resources for the Martians’ own good, bringing the best of Earth’s technology to bear. As the protagonist struggles to prove, this has happened before, and it didn’t work well.

Brackett’s Mars is a good example of how to borrow from another writer without ripping them off. Her Mars is clearly shaped by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ planetary adventures, which Brackett freely acknowledged. Like Burroughs’ Barsoom, Brackett’s Mars is a once great world, now dried up and dying. But ERB’s Martians were stoic, proud, passionate warriors. While Brackett’s Martian barbarians fit that mold, city dwellers are corrupt, decadent, frequently malicious but in small petty ways (rather than duel, they’d knife you in the back). Coupled with Brackett’s lusher style of writing (she’s definitely the better wordsmith)it feels very different.

The stories also show that amazing worldbuilding isn’t necessarily necessary for a good story (I include the modifier because I know a lot of readers value detailed worldbuilding more than I do). Brackett’s Mars isn’t all that alien; the stories of sinister cults, lost cities and ancient super-science aren’t that different from the stories other pulp writers told about the Third World. Mars could almost be Egypt under British imperial control: we have the sinister ancient cults, the angry resentment of the natives, the decadence, the secret ancient wisdom — standard pulp portrayals of far-off lands. But that doesn’t bother me much (YMMV of course); the stories are still good, and Brackett doesn’t make it feel as if it’s “just” the colonized Middle East (the dead seas, the dwindling canals, they all give it an alien feel).

But I think that also shows why so many people do find specfic from the olden days so distasteful. Mars isn’t the British Empire but the tropes are there; I know some people who don’t like them used for the Third World don’t feel they’re improved by giving other planets the same treatment. The hero of Sinharat is a “white savior” doing for the natives what they can’t do for themselves. I still like the stories, but I can understand if someone else took issue with them. But for me, the charms outweigh the flaws.

#SFWApro. Cover art is uncredited, all rights remain with current holder.

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A black amazon, black Frankenstein and a light-skinned black guy: books

As far as I know, Leigh Brackett’s only series hero was Eric John Stark, raised as a feral child in the twilight zone of Mercury before adventuring across Mars. In BLACK AMAZON OF MARS, Stark honors a dying friend’s request to return an ancient talisman to a polar Martian city. Too bad that pins Stark between a barbarian warlord starting the march to conquest there (the title and cover spoil the reveal about who’s really behind “his” iron mask) and the sinister ice creatures lurking under the polar cap. The small press edition I have also includes the forgettable “A World Is Born” and the entertaining “Child of the Sun.”

VICTOR LAVALLE’S DESTROYER (by Lavalle, Dietrich Smith and Joana LaFuente) has one good plot thread (a female scientist resurrects her son, gunned down unjustly by cops) and several that were much less interesting, including a covert government agency and the original Creature on a rampage. The uninteresting outweighed the good stuff for me.

INCOGNEGRO: Renaissance by Matt Johnson and Warren Pleece is a prequel to Incognegro in which light-skinned Zane is a cub reporter during the Harlem Renaissance. When a black writer drowns in a bathtub at a mixed-race party, the police wash their hands of it; Zane reluctantly uses his light skin to pass as white and investigate in ways nobody else could. Really good.

#SFWApro. Cover is uncredited, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Mars Needs … Ghosts? Books read

While it’s not an actual goal, I do plan on rereading a lot of old favorites this year, including SF author Leigh Brackett. THE SWORD OF RHIANNON is set on Brackett’s version of Mars, an Edgar Rice Burroughs-influenced dying world where treacherous, corrupt cities sit on the edges of dried-up seas. Carse is an Earther who’s made a name for himself as a criminal on Mars; when he tries to loot the tomb of Rhiannon, the ancient Martian lord of evil, Carse somehow winds up back in the past, when Mars was still a fertile world. He finds himself enslaved, then leading the fight against the tyrants of Sark, but it turns out Rhiannon isn’t done with him …

This combines elements of Burroughs with A. Merritt’s Dwellers in the Mirage, resulting in a book that’s familiar (it’s far from Brackett’s most original work) but pleasantly entertaining (if you’re into old-style pulp adventure, which I am). However her use of Celtic names such as Rhiannon (and other knock-off names such as “Barrakesh”) is very jarring, though maybe the original audience wouldn’t have picked up on that. It’s also very reminiscent of themes in her later Skaith novels (dying world, genetically engineered races adapted to different environments) though that’s not a flaw, just something I didn’t pick up on during my first reading.

GHOSTS KNOW by the great horror writer Ramsey Campbell was a real disappointment. Given the title, I understandably assumed this would be a ghost story; instead it’s a tale about a talk-radio host who tries to boost ratings by challenging a fake psychic. This leads to the host getting framed as the kidnapper in a case the psychic is investigating, so the end result is a Hitchcock-style story of an innocent man struggling to clear his name. Unfortunately the protagonist is too much of a sulky jerk for his plight to engage me and the lack of a supernatural element was a disappointment.

The fourth and final volume of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ KILL OR BE KILLED (I’ve previously read Vol. 1 and 2) has vigilante protagonist Dylan stuck in a mental hospital after assaulting one of his friends. When he tries to tell the doctor what he’s been doing, they point out the vigilante killings are still going on; he insists it’s a copycat, they insist he’s delusional. Meanwhile, the Russian Mafia is still tracking him down for his attacks on them. Focusing so much on Dylan’s internal struggles was a mistake because as I complained before, he’s the weakest part of the series, a stereotypical millennial whining about living a shitty life in a shitty world he never made. A bigger problem is that the ending twist, while not Kingdom of the Wicked awful, is pretty bad. I’m glad I used the library instead of putting money down on this.

MARVEL MASTERWORKS: Sub-Mariner is a Silver Age collection primarily by Stan Lee and Gene Colan (the Adam Austin of some issues is Colan under a pseudonym). This opens with a Daredevil story in which Namor goes to court, only to back out when treacherous warlord Krang tries taking over Atlantis to wage war on the surface world; to prove his right to the throne Namor, in his own series, must seek out the trident of Neptune in an adventure that resembles the Aquaman movie’s plot.

Colan’s art is awesome but the writing is second-rate Lee. Krang is an uninspired villain who does everything but twirl his mustache and Dorma, Namor’s love, is just a train wreck, never displaying any agency except when it makes things worse for Namor. And because Subby is alone so much, we get way too much of his bombastic, high-flown speech pattern without any normal people to balance it out. Lee and Colan still infuse this with enough drama to make it entertaining, but it’s not A-list.

#SFWApro. All rights to images (I don’t know the first artist; second cover is Colan’s) remain with current holder.

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